From voting battles to coal ash spills, what’s up with North Carolina?

Heading into the 21st century, North Carolina was that model Southern state — tradition meets moderation, in everything from its manners to its politics. So what happened? Depending on whom you ask, the state has either lost its way or is finding it. It’s difficult to get anyone to agree about anything these days.

Every week brings a new headline. This week, the spotlight is on the continuing battles over North Carolina’s new voting regulations, enacted last year by a legislature that is controlled by GOP super-majorities with Republican Pat McCrory in the governor’s mansion.

Rev. William J. Barber II heads the North Carolina NAACP, one of several groups challenging the state's new voting law. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Rev. William J. Barber II heads the North Carolina NAACP, one of several groups challenging the state’s new voting law. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

Don’t call it a voter-ID bill, says the Rev. William J. Barber II, the head of the state NAACP, one of the groups challenging the bill. He has labeled it a “monster voter suppression bill.” Beyond requiring specific forms of photo ID — a provision that won’t kick in until 2016 — the law eliminates same-day registration and shortens early voting by a week. It prevents out-of-precinct ballots from being counted for any office, even those that don’t depend on precinct, and expands the ability to challenge voters at the polls. It ends a preregistration program for 16- and 17- year-olds.

“The law targets nearly every aspect of the voting process,” said Penda D. Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, which is supporting the state NAACP in the suit. It affects “who can vote, where they can vote,” Hair said in a recent call, “when they can vote and how they can vote.”

In a federal court in Winston-Salem, Judge Thomas Schroeder, a George W. Bush appointee, is expected to hear closing arguments Thursday on whether to delay implementation of several of those provisions until 2015 brings a full trial on the bill’s constitutionality. North Carolina’s own figures show that African Americans vote early far more than whites (70 percent versus 51 percent in 2012), use same-day registration more often and are more likely to vote out of precinct. But is that disproportionate impact on black and Latino voters a violation of the parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the Supreme Court did not throw out last year?

The state doesn’t think so, though groups from the League of Women Voters, the ACLU and the U.S. Justice Department, as well as 93-year-old Rosanell Eaton, who had to pass a literacy test to register during the Jim Crow era and testified this week, disagree.

College students, who would be unable to use student IDs, have challenged the law on constitutional grounds, as reported in the New York Times. Each decision to move or consolidate precincts, no longer requiring prior federal approval, is looked at with suspicion, particularly when it affects closing a college-based voting station or one in minority neighborhoods.

Are the midterm elections that important?

Most roads to a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate go through North Carolina.

In last week’s conference call with those challenging the Voter Information Verification Act, its official name, Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan was not mentioned. But the name of her Republican opponent, Thom Tillis, was raised in connection with his support of the law, as North Carolina state House speaker.

Though November is still far away, North Carolina residents have been treated to election ads, reminders from outside groups and Republicans that Hagan is in the same party as Barack Obama, the president who signed and promoted the Affordable Care Act. Many of Hagan’s ads show her saving businesses, helping veterans and looking senatorial. Tillis has walked back and explained words about women and minorities — interpreted in their most unfavorable light by opponents.

And if that’s not exciting enough, there’s the Libertarian candidate, known as Sean Haugh, pizza deliveryman, with his homespun, homemade ads; his candidacy is a wild card that may tip the balance if his message resonates with fed-up voters.

“Moral Monday” protests against conservative legislation, led by Barber, have crossed the state and picked up support from a host of disgruntled groups, from teachers who want a raise to same-sex couples who want legal recognition.

Environmentalists gained steam and support after up to 82,000 tons of wet coal ash spilled from one of Duke Energy’s retired coal-plant sites into North Carolina’s Dan River this year.

The state legislature is currently meeting in Raleigh in a short session. Senate Republicans have walked out before school superintendents testified about proposed cuts of teacher assistant jobs, and other legislators threatened to keep meeting until Christmas as arguments continued over an overdue budget, a notion that must be giving Tillis, caught between presiding and campaigning, headaches.

On the back burner, but not for long, is the fight between the Charlotte City Council and a state-backed Charlotte Airport Commission over control of the Charlotte airport. The commission has been meeting but has little power to do anything until the courts and lawmakers figure it out.

That state of confusion could describe what’s going on in the state of North Carolina where Southern hospitality is in short supply but the fractures are out for all to see.

 

 

 

 

 

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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